“Unimaginable injustice” 45 years in prison

Is Cleve Heidelberg INNOCENT?


On a cold, gray Friday afternoon in mid-January, Marcella Teplitz and Andrew Hale drove east on Harmon Highway from the site of the old Bellevue Drive-In movie theater. Outside the theater ticket booth is where Peoria County Sheriff’s Sgt. Raymond Espinoza had been shot and killed in his patrol car 45 years ago.

On this day, as they have on many others, Teplitz and Hale were following the shooter’s escape route.

It’s a crime they have dissected from all angles. Racial tension was sweeping the country and Black Panthers were in the news. White America was afraid. This was the murder of a white sheriff’s sergeant by a black man.

But things happened in this case that are shocking. Even after nearly half a century, Hale’s investigation shows evidence was destroyed, witnesses were misled, statements were fabricated, evidence was manufactured. Constitutional rights were trampled.

Still, Teplitz and Hale keep reviewing the case for anything they might be missing. What might they not be seeing? Teplitz, now retired from the Peoria Police Department and a private investigator, was behind the wheel of her tan Buick sedan on Friday as they drove the escape route. Hale, an attorney, was in the front passenger seat.

“He was driving fast,” Teplitz said of events in the early morning hours of May 26, 1970. “By the time he got here to Western, more police were in pursuit.”

Teplitz continued east on Lincoln Avenue, turned left onto Blaine and the two got out of her car at Blaine and Butler. A blustery gust of wind hit them.

“This is the scene of the crash,” Hale said, lapsing into present tense. “He tries to turn right but swings too wide and hits a parked car. He gets out and runs north.”

Pointing to a house near the crash site, Hale said, “A couple on the porch there are unlocking their front door, they look over here and see a guy running north.”

Police chased the man on foot. About four blocks north of the crash, they lose him. Police never get close enough to positively identify the man.

About 20 minutes later, at 2:02 a.m. a call comes in to police headquarters. A neighbor spots a man walking toward Butler Street. It’s Cleve Heidelberg who was just dropped off near the Butternut Bakery on Lincoln Avenue to retrieve his car after receiving a phone call that the car had been abandoned at Blaine and Butler.

Heidelberg, 33 at the time, has a prior conviction for armed robbery. He’s 5 feet 11 inches, 225 pounds and wears brown horn-rimmed glasses. He worked as a technician at Caterpillar Inc.

Heidelberg started walking toward his car that had been borrowed by a friend who loaned it to another man.

When he turned onto Butler, he saw dozens of police vehicles. Police spot him.

He runs from the scene, into the yard of James Polk who was then living at 1614 W. Butler. Today Polk is a trustee on the board of Illinois Central College and recalls some events of that night.

Barking dogs woke Polk up, and he pulled his wife to the floor and ran to the window, turned on the porch light and saw Heidelberg who was then apprehended. Polk and his wife saw Heidelberg thrown to the ground, handcuffed, surrounded by eight to 10 police officers who kicked and beat him. Polk testified he heard the police say something like “We ought to kill him and say that he resisted arrest.” Polk and his wife ran out of their house and confronted the officers. Heidelberg was taken into custody.

The police were convinced they had the murderer. A black man murdered a white police officer. The evidence seemed clear.

Now, nearly half a century later, that convincingly clear evidence is unraveling.

“Tunnel vision” with an eye on conviction is how Hale describes the arrest, investigation and prosecution of Heidelberg.

Chicago attorney drawn into Peoria Heidelberg case

A Chicago attorney who normally defends police officers in litigations, Hale became involved in the Heidelberg case after working on the Alstory Simon case.

Journalism students at the Northwestern University Innocence Project mounted a successful media campaign attempting to prove the innocence of Anthony Porter, then incarcerated for a double murder in 1982. Porter was within 48 hours of execution when the Northwestern students pulled off their strategy. With worldwide media attention, Porter was released in 1999. Simon was tracked down, charged and convicted.

Hale became convinced Simon was innocent, and he began tearing apart the case. The exoneration of Simon unearthed a pattern of unethical and sloppy work by overly enthusiastic young students on the Innocence Project. David Protess, head of the Innocence Project, left Northwestern following the disclosures. Simon was released in 2014 after 20 years in prison. He has filed a lawsuit against Northwestern.

He also provided attorney Andrew Hale with a connection to the 1970 murder of Peoria Police Sgt. Espinoza. Simon had become friends with Heidelberg in prison and knew his story. He asked Hale to look into the case.

“I was reluctant. I was skeptical. Generally, I defend police,” said Hale, who also has a Saturday night TV program “Crime Stoppers Chicago.”

After nearly a year of research, reviewing court records, police records, dispatch transcripts and conducting interviews in Peoria and California, Hale became convinced of Heidelberg’s innocence. Hale reached out to Teplitz to work the case.

“I joined the police force six months after the Espinoza murder,” Teplitz said, adding that her first district as a police officer was the neighborhood where Heidelberg’s car crashed and he was arrested.

She has spent the past three months retracing events of the early morning hours of May 26, 1970.

“There is a methodology police would follow,” she said. “It all seemed to be ignored in this case. Was it sloppy or purposeful or both?”

Some of the problems Teplitz and Hale have documented:

There is no record of processing the Heidelberg car for fingerprints. Objects inside the car were processed for prints. An F.B.I. report comparing Heidelberg’s fingerprints with those found on the gun were “negative” and another stated “no latent prints of value . . . .” These reports were never entered into evidence.

There is no photographic record of the police lineup that had glaring irregularities. Heidelberg was injured during the arrest and had five stitches and a swollen eye. Clearly, he had just been in an altercation.

Witnesses viewed the lineup together and one was a paid police informant. One witness insisted repeatedly she could not identify Heidelberg, but the police report indicated she positively identified him.

Someone ordered parts of the police investigation to be destroyed.

Although eyewitnesses identified Heidelberg, there were key inconsistencies in their descriptions. His clothing was different from the man involved in the drive-in robbery seen running north after the car crash.

Heidelberg had asked to be represented by New York attorney William Kunstler. The judge refused to postpone the trial so Heidelberg was defended by a young attorney. During the trial, the courthouse was evacuated because of a bomb threat. The prosecutor was seeking the death penalty for Heidelberg. “There was a circus atmosphere” one account of the trial read.

Heidelberg was convicted and sentenced to 99 to 175 years in prison, but has always maintained his innocence.

While in prison, Heidelberg saw Peorian James Clark who was in prison for another crime. Clark confessed to Heidelberg that he had killed Sgt. Espanoza during a robbery. He had borrowed Heidelberg’s blue Rambler from Lester Mason, the man Heidelberg consistently stated had borrowed his car. Heidelberg was unaware that Mason had then loaned the car to another man. Clark admitted he secured a 38-caliber revolver from Junius Whitt, drove to the theater allegedly looking for his wife. Inside the projection booth he bound up the manager and took a female employee as a hostage.

When Sgt. Espanoza responded to a police call about an armed robbery at the drive-in, Clark stated “it was kill or be killed that night.”

He fired at Espanoza, hitting him twice in the head.

Witnesses who could have verified Clark’s confession and account of the evening pleaded the Fifth Amendment at the trial, refusing to testify out of fear.

Clark’s confession was used to request an evidentiary hearing, but that request was denied, and the Peoria County State’s Attorney stated “Our concern at this time would be to protect the trial record . . . . “

Clark died this past summer. Attorney Hale flew to California to speak with Clark’s brother Matt, 75, who verified his brother James Clark had confessed that he was the shooter.

Seeking exoneration

Hale and Teplitz want this case reviewed in light of the problems they have documented. They’d like Cleve Heidelberg, now 73, released from prison and his conviction vacated.

“It’s the case of a lifetime,” Teplitz said.

Hale calls the case “a horrible and unimaginable injustice.”

Heidelberg is very smart, well-spoken and well-read, Hale said, and he has struggled for 45 years to prove his innocence. His parents both died while he has been in prison.

Hale said Chicago has a Conviction Integrity Unit with the sole purpose of reviewing potential wrongful convictions. It was Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez who reviewed the report of the Conviction Integrity Unit and released Alstory Simon.

“Peoria is smaller than Cook County, but maybe Peoria needs a dedicated conviction integrity unit,” Hale said.

Unfortunately, wrongful convictions happen far more frequently than most people realize. Of an estimated 10,000 innocent Americans convicted of serious crimes each year, only about 1.25 percent are exonerated, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union.




Crime documentary

Attorney Andrew Hale is also a documentary film producer. Time magazine calls his film on the Anthony Porter case, “A Murder in the Park,” one of the 15 most fascinating true crime stories ever told.

It will air on Showtime Feb. 17.

Hale plans to start production of a movie on the Cleve Heidelberg case. He expects to come to Peoria at least twice this summer with a film crew and hopes to release the film by the end of the year.




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